The Raven’s Head

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I don’t know, these authors! You wait for ages and ages and ages for a new decent dark horrible Medieval thriller by Karen Maitland, and then in the space of a year you get two!

Following on from my review of the excellent The Vanishing Witch back in July, I was delighted to be sent this, her newest book, which is out in hardback in March, so get your pre-orders in now. The Raven’s Head  is set a little earlier than her previous books, in 1217 or thereabouts, just after Magna Carta, during the reign of the boy king Henry III. Whilst the politics of the time inform the writing, they really aren’t the main point of this book, unlike The Vanishing Witch, which so beautifully showed the affect of the Peasant’s Revolt on ordinary people. In this book, Maitland goes much, much darker.

Vincent, apprentice librarian in the court of a French lord, is bored of his life in a dusty tower full of ancient documents. When an opportunity comes to blackmail his master, Vincent tries his luck and ends up on the run. His only hope is to sell the valuable silver Raven’s Head ornament his ill fortune has left him with. However, his path to selling the head leads him to the village of Langley, run by the mysterious Lord Sylvian and Father Arthmael’s White Canons.

Vincent’s tale is told alongside those of Wilky, the small son of a local peasant who is taken by the White Canons in exchange for a debt, and apothecary Gisa, who is employed by Lord Sylvian to make up potions whose ingredients include crushed skulls, fresh dung, and strange stones known as dragon’s blood.

As the three characters discover more about the strange practices of Sylvian and Arthmael it soon becomes clear that this is not a story that is going to end well for everyone. For the two men are alchemists, devoted to the ancient practices that using proto-scientific methods to try and turn base materials into gold, and discover the secrets of eternal life. Unfortunately for Vincent, these practices demand human sacrifice and the Raven’s Head, which he believes brings him luck and good fortune, may actually be leading him to his doom.

This was an extremely hard and distressing book to read in parts. Maitland really does push the boundaries as she explores how people used to treat each other-even the legal way of dealing with child poachers had me almost in tears, never mind how Arthmael extracts the raw ingredients to be used in the alchemist practices. The Middle Ages were truly a horrible, horrible time to be alive if you weren’t in a position of extreme power. The descriptions of the abuse, particularly abuse towards children, were hard to stomach, I would imagine very hard to write. Alchemy itself makes absolutely no sense to me because I just don’t understand how people could think and act in the ways they do in this book, but this practice was very well established throughout Europe and Asia, and the ‘methods’ of gaining the knowledge of eternal life passed down in secret books and through the teachings of well know philosophers and proto-scientists.

What this book does do so well is illustrate how ingrained the practice of learning through images and symbols was, and how much people relied on folklore to understand the world around them. How scared you would be in a world you didn’t understand, how jumbled a mind you would have had.

However, this book didn’t match The Vanishing Witch for the sympathy I had in the characters-Vincent especially annoyed me-and the story seemed a little rushed in places and drawn out in others. I also had horrible horrible thoughts and dreams after reading it, though I am going through a bit of stress at the moment so reading a book about the torture of children might not have been the best of ideas. Relaxing beach book this isn’t.

If you are a fan of Maitland you shouldn’t miss this one, think more Gallows’ Curse than Owl Thieves, but I’m so glad she’s cracking out the books now and look forward to seeing what other horrors she has in store in 2016.

 

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Friday Reads

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My first Friday Reads post for a while-I HAVE been reading, just not reviewing then, which is bad. I did, however, want to write about The Snow Child, nominated for the Pulitzer in 2013.

The debut novel of Alaskan journalist and bookseller Eowyn Ivey, this is the story of a couple who relocate to Alaska in the 1920s, who reconnect because of necessity of working in partnership for survival, breaking down the enforced gender roles of the time, to discover a deep love for each other and for the land they work. It is also about what it means to be a parent and how grief can affect people.

Inspired by the Russian fairy tale of the Snow Child, where an older couple make a snowman that turns into a child who can only stay alive in the freezing winter but vanishes with the frost, this book is also centred around a mysterious girl who visit Jack and Martha and becomes their surrogate daughter.

This part of the book, however, despite being it’s focal centre, I found the weakest. The moments of real joy and feeling were those centred around Jack and Martha and their relationship. I did not like the insinuation that their happiness with each other was entirely dependent on their shared love for a third as I do not believe that was what made them rediscover each other. In my reading of the book, it was Martha discovering independence and freedom of movement, without restraint or social responsibility, which led to their ultimate happiness as a couple. Martha learns this through necessity and through her neighbour Esther. This is probably complexly opposite to what the author intended but I did form a theory that the Old Testament Esther, who lives her life in a way as women did/could before patriarchal social norms that prevented women from working with the men, saves New Testament Martha, who worries too much about the little things in the home and having a tidy house to see what is really important.

Martha’s status as a mother who had lost a child was affecting, and very well done, but I was more impressed by the novel for its depiction of Alaskan life than as a retelling of a fairy tale. I would love to go to Alaska, after reading this book, as it sounds like just the most beautiful place on Earth.

A chilly, but lovely read this would make the perfect Christmas present for anyone who is into books about the time, or people who like a good weep. It is a couple of years old now, but it passed me by the first time round so I’m guessing there would be a few people who also haven’t read this book. A book club would also love it.

The Twilight Hour

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Nicci Gerrard is one half of crime writing partnership Nicci French. I never knew she was a writer in her own right, and was for a long time before her books with husband Sean French. The Twilight Hour is therefore the first Nicci Gerrard book I’ve read, and I’m pretty certain it won’t end up being the last!

Another 20th C history romance sage thinger (seem to be getting through a lot of them lately, must be the weather), this book is a nice, accessible but touching read that accompanied me on a recent nightmare train journey to London, during which the people in front of me were upgraded to first class to accommodate a screaming child who had previously been in the quiet coach… you can imagine my joy.

Fortunately I was immersed in the story of Eleanor Lee, ninety-odd, certified blind, and desperate to hide her hidden mysterious past from her family before she dies. On the advice of her grandson she employs Peter, a young man who has just emerged from a disastrous relationship and himself feels very lost and alone, to go through her books, letters, and photographs, and find the things she would rather her family didn’t.

The mystery itself isn’t that mysterious, but I suppose to a real family rather a fictional one it would be. To be honest I was looking for something slightly more sensational that what was found, but I won’t spoiler it for you. This is genuinely a lovely, if slightly tame book, and if you are a fan of war time romance and decent writing I would recommend it.

Eleanor herself is a wonderfully drawn character, as are the female members of her family. You really do see her motivations for how she behaves; there was one situation in particular that made me feel really wrung out for her, as a character study this book is exemplary. The men, however, fall a little flat and are a little stock-hero in places. It did make me think about what we leave behind and what affect that could have on those around us-your perceptions of those you love do change after their death especially when you learn more about the person. I remember learning stuff about my grandparents after they passed on that completely made me see them in a different-in fact more impressed- light.

The Independent describes Gerrard’s writing as ‘unpretentious and page turning’, which just about summed up this book for me. Published at just the right time this would make a cracking half term treat or, as I’ve already said, a wonderful train book. A rainy day curl-up-by-the-fire-and-devour. It also makes you want to drink good wine and eat game pie, so have some to hand if you can.

One Last Dance

I have never heard of Judith Lennox until I was sent this book, and would have probably continued to be unaware of her – this is despite some absolutely cracking reviews of her previous titles on the cover of One Last Dance, and her back catalogue doesn’t fall below a 3.8/5 on goodreads-which believe me is staggering for a romance/saga writer.

I cannot tell you how happy it has made me that I’ve found her. This writer needs more press.

One Last Dance was so utterly blissful to read, it was so comforting and warm and familiar, whilst also being new and different. Like brand new pyjamas you already feel snuggly in, even though you haven’t even washed them yet and they haven’t acquired your smell. They are yours, but they aren’t at the same time. That sense of hope that everything is, yes it actually is, going to be OK. Because books like this one are still getting published, and still getting press, and hopefully still getting read. If you’ve ever loved a romance novel please, PLEASE, read this book, it is just gorgeous.

Starting, as every slightly historical romance book published in the next five years will be, in the turbulence of the First World War, One Last Dance (dreadful, instantly forgettable title, and yet wonderful for that-this won’t do a Morton and spawn a long line of The Things of Thingy books with flowery gates on the front) follows the Reddaway family of Rosindell in Devon over the next fifty years, capturing the roaring twenties, the horror of the Blitz, the swinging sixties and everything inbetween with great aplomb, and mercifully without feeling crammed.

Focusing primarily on the love triangle between Devlin Reddaway and sisters Esme and Camilla, and the fall-out this series of relationships has on the rest of their family, this book brings the Barbara Taylor Bradford touch to Modern Women’s Writing. It’s been marketed from Downton fans; I’d have gone full A Woman of Substance/Lace route and get the blockbuster lovers involved. I also read The Light Years this summer, and whilst technically this is no companion to Elizabeth Jane Howard (bits dragged, other bits skimmed  too quickly, a few deuses were ex the machina) the overall feel of the novel is the same.

Simply, movingly told, it all just seems so effortless. This is clearly a woman who knows her craft, and uses her tools well. Family life in all it’s suffocating agony is brought out, with real pathos and sympathy to human suffering. Characters are, for the most part, developed and real people, with some beautifully horrid baddies that have their own journeys that slide along nicely. The family saga element works well, it all works well, its a lovely lovely story. One of those where you don’t really want to leave them all at the end.

It is extremely easy to read, won’t be winning any awards, and reminds you of those Danielle Steele/Catherine Cookson three part dramas on ITV3 on Sunday afternoons. But I bloody LOVE three part dramas on a Sunday afternoon, and I know a LOT of women who ALSO love three part dramas on a Sunday afternoon. This book made me want to read purely for the pleasure of letting my mind wander for a while. I’m in the middle of a Margaret Atwood-a-thon in prep for seeing her at Ilkley Lit Fest next week (eeeeeeee) so I needed something to relax to and I am ever so grateful for being allowed to discover Judith Lennox. Be assured, I shall be finding everything else she’s ever read. But I heartily recommend this one. Autumn is here, get your comfy sweater out, treat yourself to this in paperback and a new bookmark from your local museum or art gallery and get settled on the sofa with some Tunnocks Tea Cakes and a big cup of coffee and enjoy. And then come and have a cry with me at the end.

The Crimson Ribbon

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A couple of weeks ago I read and reviewed Gutenberg’s Apprentice, which tells the story of the birth of printing in Europe. The Crimson Ribbon, set two hundred years later, is a strangely apt novel to follow with, as it shows how printing was then used as a propaganda tool and how the craze for spreading ideas through print led to radical changes in the state and how people saw the powerful.

Opening in the most horrific and brutal description of the savagery of 17th century misogyny, this superb debut by Katherine Clements is the story of Ruth Flowers, sometime maid to Oliver Cromwell, who becomes tied up with the lives of Elizabeth Poole, mystic and prophetess, and the radical Levellers printing their pamphlets out of London’s West End. Throughout Ruth, vulnerable,  trusting and occasionally frustratingly naive, tries her hardest to keep her head above water and her secret history of witchcraft and suspicion still secret.

This book is remarkable in that it is so original. I’ve read plenty of books about love, sexuality, witchcraft, mysticism, politics and printing but never, I think, all of them together. Abusive relationships, the reliance of a partner who suffers from an emotionally manipulative partner on their abuser and the psychological effect of this need, all tied in with the horror of the Civil War, the effects of revolutions on the mindset of the common people, and the radical shift of religious thought. What is most remarkable is that she has managed to squeeze all of this is such a compressed and well structure book-it is only 350 pages, feels like 200, could have easily been extended to 400 without me getting bored.

The structure is also wonderfully done. It starts as it means to go on; violent, but descriptive and well thought out.

No wonder really, Clements was on the examination board for the first ever Creative Writing degree, so you’d expect this to be well executed. It is very very fictionalised-so if you like your historical fiction to be ‘real’ stories based on real characters this isn’t the book for you as it will just frustrate you. But it is fresh and new and comes with a beautiful front cover so anyone who supports new, decent, writing should read it. I loved it and cannot recommend enough.

The Rosie Effect Blog Tour

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I’m chuffed to bit to be kicking off this week’s blog tour of Graeme Simsion’s second novel, The Rosie Effect. Carrying on from where Graeme’s bestselling debut ended, this continues the story of Professor Don Tilman and his new wife Rosie, as they encounter further problems living in The Big Apple, New York City. Don loves Rosie, and is beginning to cope without his Standardised Meal Systems and need for personal space-but what happens when Rosie decides to start a family, can he cope with fatherhood-can the couple survive the pregnancy?

Here are a few words from the author…

The Rosie Project in the last year – what’s happened since publication?

I suppose there are authors who never look at the bestseller lists or the sales figures. Or say they don’t. I’m not one of them. I’m interested in the commercial side of publishing, and conscious that if a publisher loses on a book deal with me, they may be less excited next time. And The Rosie Project was my first novel.

Since publication in Australia in February last year, it’s had a strong run in the bestseller lists around the world, with translation rights now sold in 37 languages. Sony Pictures have optioned the film rights, and I’ve completed the draft screenplay.

The bottom line is that I now make a living writing, and it’s hard to overstate how important that is to me. But what has been at least as interesting has been the response of readers. I’ve been on the road in Australia, US and UK, with visits to Germany, France, Italy, New Zealand and Hong Kong almost non-stop since publication, and have had a chance to meet literally thousands of them. And there are the online reviews and feedback via my publishers and social media.

So…

1. Men like the book as much as women, but are more likely to find it ‘profound’ than ‘funny’. (“Don is so like my husband” vs “Don’s a bit like me.”) And they’re likely to read it because it’s recommended by their female partner. Bill Gates’s review at illustrates both points.

2. The Asperger’s community have been hugely supportive and I’ve done several talks for Asperger’s / autism groups. Criticism of the comedic aspect – or the authenticity of the representation – has come largely from outside that community.

3. It’s all about Don. Although it has been promoted in some countries as ‘romance’ or ‘chick lit’ with an emphasis on Rosie’s story, readers primary interest is in Don.

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion is published by Michael Joseph on 25th September, £14.99 hardback Available for pre-order here!

The Rosie Effect blog tour continues tomorrow over on Novel Kicks.

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So, what did I think?

Well…

I loved The Rosie Project. Loved it. I found it touching, hilarious in parts, really incite full and an obvious best seller in the making.  My original review for LeedsBookClub goes on and on and on about how much I loved it and I was chuffed to bits when the book became part of the Sharing Stories chosen books for 2014.

The Rosie Effect is definitely a sequel, rather than a stand alone novel. It isn’t as laugh and loud funny as TRP, nor is it as original-because it is a sequel. It is however very profound and thought-provoking in the way that it shows the challenges of living with none neurotypical brain in a world that judges those do very harshly. This book shows Don as a fish, not out of water, but maybe a little out of depth.

Don has settled very nicely into his life at Columbia University, supporting Rosie, working part-time as a cocktail waiter, getting on with his new friends. Rosie falls pregnant. This is the beginning of a series of personal disasters for Don as the control he needs to have over his life slowly slips away.

Firstly, let me get this out-of-the-way, I hated Rosie in this book. The person who was a bit of lightness in TRP now comes across as frankly a bit of a tool. I wouldn’t be friends with her. In this book, not many people are. She is a 30 year old woman with a lot of problems but this book fails to address any of them, or explore them more than in an explanatory for-the-sake-of-the-plot way, and that, as a woman of a similar age and circumstance, is a shame. But this isn’t her book.

Don, however, is just one of my favourite fictional characters. In TRP we saw a man living independently and doing fine, TRE has Don showing himself as a sort of Brownie, fixing everything around him because of his ability to just get on with the job without being swayed by emotions. Don is more vulnerable in TRE that in TRP, because he has a lot more to lose, and this makes him a more rounded character that the Don we got to know in TRP.

The book is also about men, and their relationships with each other and their partners. Straight men, straight middle-aged men, are not exactly known for being characters in books that explore emotions and consequences of emotions. This book looks at fatherhood, and friendship, and is all the sweeter for it.

TRE takes a LONG time to get going, the second half of the to be honest occasionally over-long novel is vastly superior to the first, but if you loved Don then it is worth a punt. If you are looking for laughs and prat falls however, this isn’t the book for you. But maybe, for us who know and love people like Don, or are people like Don, that isn’t such a bad thing.

Gutenberg’s Apprentice

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One thing that librarians get asked a LOT (by non-librarians) is how we feel about eBooks-are they going to kill publishing, aren’t we scared of them, why can’t we just make a deal with Amazon to get everything free ever. Of course, in actual fact a lot of my budget goes on buying individual textbook eBooks, which in some cases are prohibitively expensive and limited in usability, and then seeing them hardly ever get used. Or desperately trying to promote the massive corporate eBook platform packages that are the only realistic way libraries that aren’t predominantly fiction-based have of getting their users access to the things.

But I will miss real books, when the time comes. They are lovely things.

Imagine a world before them.

This debut book by printer and journalist Alix Christie asks us to do just that. Imagine the Western world before printing. Where everything, everything, had to be written out by hand. Imagine the time and the patience and the expertise it would have taken to be able to write, beautifully, legibly, for hours on end. Then imagine that world being ripped apart and your job being made redundant, instantly. This is the main difference between the eBook revolution and what happened upon the invention of printing; printed publishing isn’t going to be made obsolete with eBooks, merely change. In 1455 a whole trade was invented that virtually destroyed another one.

Gutenberg’s Apprentice is the story of Peter Schoeffer, the man behind the Frankfurt Book Fair, who begins life as an orphan, taken in by the family of Fust the merchant, and apprenticed firstly as a goldsmith, then eventually as a scribe. Working in Paris, at the top of his game, life looks rosy for Peter until his is called home by his adopted father who has a mission for him. Fust has got himself involved financially with Johann Gutenberg and his new invention-movable type made of metal. What Gutenberg needs is someone with finesse, a scribe to add the finishing touches. Peter, with his artist’s eye (and these scribe were true artists, look at the various Medieval manuscript Twitter accounts and see just how lovely hand-written books were) is just what the printer needs. That and Fust’s money. Printing costs a LOT of money. I never realised just how must money, and STUFF, goes in to printing a book, or at least would have done in 1455.

But of course it is a lot more complicated than that. This is the beginning of the Renaissance, there are various political upheavals happening in Mainz, where they are based, and across Europe and beyond. This book expertly shows the links between politics, religion, business and invention. However, and this is where the book falls down, this is a very very complicated time to be alive. I have studied this period in European history for my A Levels and have a general interest in it anyway and I got confused. Incredibly detailed in her research, Christie has basically written a non-fiction book with a semi-imagined character telling it. Between the various loyalties of guilds and Elders and archbishops and monks that Peter has to navigate I found myself frequently lost and skimming for plot points.

If you want to know about the history of the first printed books, in lots of detail, this book is for you. It is fascinating, and deserves to be read properly, but I couldn’t help thinking, why didn’t she just write it as a non-fiction book? It is a dramatic enough story to deserve to be told in its own right, it didn’t need to have Peter dragging us along.

This book is most successful in that it makes you see what printing really was; a revolutionary idea that would have been really quite scary to some people.Gutenberg’s Apprentice is massive and takes a long time-but if you want to get to grips with a history of a thing, I’d save this for a Christmas treat to really let your mind be filled with the world of metal and fire and sweat that creates these beautiful, beautiful books we now take so for granted.